For fellow ethnographers (and design enthusiasts in general), one of the best design references I’ve seen. A bootleg of Stanford d.school‘s “Design Bootcamp,” a course which serves as the foundation of their curriculum. A great overview of design thinking and related exercises, as published (click here) by the d.school itself under the Creative Commons license.
How much can a blind woman teach you about filmmaking? Turns out, quite a bit.
As I reflect on my Buffalo Walk piece, and prepare to dive into the rest of my footage from my cross-country drive, I’m grappling with how to create a short documentary that’s both hopeful and gripping. How do I tell a story that’s positive, yet doesn’t fall into the trap of being naïve?
At yesterday’s National Storytelling Conference in LA I had the pleasure of attending Wendy Edey’s excellent talk on hopeful storytelling. Wendy, a blind “Hope Specialist” from Alberta Canada, counsels those who struggle to find hope in their lives, be it because of an illness, addiction, or another circumstance that’s weighing on their lives.
Wendy shared the following insights on how to tell a hopeful story:
– Organize your story around a symbol of hope, be it an object or a person.
– Don’t tell people what to hope for; empathize with what’s possible for them and what they’re ready to hope for.
– Create hope with the language of yet and when, e.g. He had not yet discovered that people with disabilities can win battles / I look forward to the day when the day after chemo will be as good as the day after taking an asprin.
– Create hope by playing with time; make the time span as long as it needs to be.
– A hopeful story is a lot more about how bad it gets in the middle than how well it resolves in the end.
– Make the hope obvious: literally call it out to the audience.
– The element of doubt makes hope significant.
With Wendy’s advice ringing on my ears, I’m curious to see how I will be able to weave her guidance into a film narrative. Thank you for your thoughts Wendy, and here’s to weaving positivity.
I have yet to meet a person who has thought more deeply about how story is constructed than Barbara Barry.
A former PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, Barbara’s research focused on developing systems that can understand story and assist in its creation. Building such a system, it turns out, is really really hard. Take the sentence, “She ran down the street with a wet cat in her arms.” When a person hears this they know, intuitively, that a dramatic event is unfolding. They imagine the scared, cold cat digging its claws deeply into the woman’s hand. They imagine the women, running from or towards something with a sense of urgency. A machine, on the other hand, will have great difficulty extrapolating such storylines. Barbara has done extensive work on tackling this problem by creating storytelling platforms that draw on paradigms in artificial intelligence, psychology and the archetypes of story.
Potential applications of Barbara’s research includes:
– A decision engine built into a videocamera that asks you what scene you wish to film (say a birthday party), and then suggests a potential shotlist (birthday cake, candles, presents, balloons, etc). This system could also analyze your previous shots and suggest what shots to take to make the story more compelling.
– A custom documentary builder that allows you to pick an event (say Election Night 2008), a subject (say the 2nd generation Cuban diaspora), and then automatically outputs a powerful, compelling video on the story of (in this example) the Cuban disapora during the Obama/McCain election.
– A healthcare platform that develops a customized narrative that can soothe a patient who is in pain or feeling anxious. This is based on the premise that A: not everyone relates the same way to the same stories (e.g. to imagine floating in the sky would be scary to someone with a fear of heights); and B: story and narrative can have a real impact on managing physical stresses.
Barbara also pointed me towards some super helpful resources:
– On the archetypes of story: Georges Polti, 19th Century French writer who described 36 basic types of story; Aristotle’s Poetrics: earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory
– On understanding compelling story structure: Robert McKee, screenwriting instructor whose former students have won 26 Academy Awards and 125 Emmys.
– On the concept of conceptual dependency: Roger Schank, who developed a markup language based on the principle that verbs of all languages can be expressed using a small number of primitives.
– On Story at MIT: The Common Sense Computing Initiative is studying how to use story and narrative as a tool for problem-solving.
I’ve heard from several folks about the power of storytelling, but my meeting with Barbara left me in awe of both the complexity of story and its influence on fields ranging from healthcare to problem-solving.
This week I took a deep dive into improv via a one-week course with the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). As we wind down, my instructor Nick handed out a worksheet that summarizes the rules of improv that he’s worked to instill into my 16 classmates and me. The last item reads: “Final Rule: You can break all of the preceding rules, however, most of the time you’ll be better off if you don’t. Improv rules tend to be life rules.”
Given what I’ve learned in this course, I suspect that the intended meaning of this last point is that good improv is realistic. For improv to be funny, it needs to have a grounding in reality. If it’s completely fantastical, and the characters and scenarios are simply crazy, the audience will stop caring.
That said, I also interpret this in another way: the more comfortable you are with life, the more receptive the audience will be to your improv. From the two shows I’ve viewed and through my experience with my classmates, I find that the performers who consistently get the most laughs are those who truly don’t care about how they’re perceived, who are okay with complete lack of control in a scene, and who are totally focused on the moment (as opposed to the audience, or other distractions). In short, the more comfortable they are with their place in the universe (and whatever it throws at them), the more readily the audience connects with their work.
My last day of class is tomorrow, followed by a show at the UCB theater on Saturday evening. Here we go-
In some ways my trip has been a crash course in interviewing and video editing. I feel like I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the right way of doing things, and I know that I’m still making plenty of mistakes. You can imagine my joy when yesterday I received a phone call from Josh Weinstein, founder of Inside Cinema. Inside Cinema is a company that uses video “as a transformative tool for individuals and organizations,” and has done very innovative work on framing issues such as women’s leadership in Saudi Arabia.
Here is the advice that Josh had for me:
Conduct The Interview
– Given that my film is focused on conversation, make sure my audio quality is as good as possible
– Don’t touch the camera while the subject is speaking: reframe the shot between questions, and it’s not as important to zoom in during moments of emotional intensity as some guides suggest
– If an important thought is not coherently stated in one contiguous sentence, re-ask a variant of the same question
– To liven up the clip, intersplice action-oriented footage (B-roll)
– At the end of my interviews, while it is still fresh in my mind, jot down notes on powerful moments
Find the Good Stuff
– View the footage in its entirety and take copious notes. If possible, transcribe the interview, print it out, and highlight important passages as I rewatch a clip
– Note thoughts that will make powerful openers and closers
– Stick to what is compelling in the video, which may be very different than what I experienced live. Let the footage guide me.
Create the Final Product
– Before I begin, articulate my agenda: e.g. is it to encourage people to take risks and lead more passionate lives?
– Search for existing narratives that appeal to me and explore using them as a framework.
– One way to organize my interviews is by theme: for example, beginner’s luck. I could then find the interviews that fall into that theme and bring two or three people together for a 5 minute clip.
– Overlaying footage from two different periods of time can have a powerful effect: for example, combining a clip with someone’s reaction to said clip. I can also experiment with having people respond to each other.
I’m super grateful for Josh’s guidance and I look forward to tracking the impact that he makes through his unique narrative style.
A couple of weeks ago a friend told me, “the most powerful stories are those that you tell to yourself.” Shane Murphy, a tech entrepreneur based in London, has taken this premise and built diarydoo, a microblogging diary platform. This platform combines the publishing facility of Twitter with the privacy of a personal journal.
My conversation with Shane sparked a question: why do some of us write down our embarrassing stories? My guess is that act of writing down a story is cathartic. The more we get them out of our heads and in front of our eyes (a journal), or into the ears of others (a performance), the less they weigh us down. Case in point: yesterday on The Moth Radio Hour a guy recounted an incredibly embarrassing story about the first and only time he served as a prostitute (spoiler: they ended up cuddling). I can only imagine that the mix of fear and embarrassment that he felt from telling the story must have been outstripped by the relief of getting it off his chest. Otherwise, why would he have done it?
Which leads me to the next question: if externalizing a story is necessarily cathartic, is there value to keeping a story secret, for secret’s sake? And, in our current culture, where privacy is increasingly opt-out (e.g. Facebook photos, Blippy, etc), is it natural to assume that the private story is an endangered species?
Last week I had coffee with Cara Solomon, a former journalist for the Seattle Times and founder of thesmallstory.com. Cara’s site is based on a premise that I believe in deeply: that everyone has an interesting story to tell.
Through Cara I uncovered a treasure trove of tips and tricks for my storytelling project. Among them, these were my favorites:
On unraveling a new town:
– Visit community gathering spots: often the town diner, coffeeshop, or park, and sometimes (surprisingly) the town dump.
– Ask strangers: who should I hang out with if I want to get a sense of what this town is about?
– For ideas on what to cover in town, as well as who the players are, read the events and help wanted sections of the local newspaper.
On choosing a topic:
– Be flexible: if I try to fit everything into a mold, I will miss out on a lot of great content.
– Approach interviews with as few preconceived notions as possible. Listen hard. What I thought might be most interesting thing about a person at the start of the interview may not be what I find most interesting at the end. That said, if the story is not holding my interest, it will not hold someone else’s; cut my losses and move on.
On hero stories:
– People like hero stories however they’re not rooted in reality. Everyone has a weakness, and it’s that weakness that makes them even more interesting. Discover it.
– Ask: We already know what you’re good at, so what do you wish you were better at?
On dealing with an interviewee’s anxiety:
– Focus on the person, not my questions. Many reporters don’t take out notebooks until later in the interview.
– Explain to people why it is that I’m interested in speaking with them.
– Don’t introduce the video camera without permission, and don’t use the tape to simply recap the interview. Instead, after the interview I should ask myself: what are the five questions that I now want to answer? Use this as my starting point for the taped segment.
I know that Cara’s advice has saved me from making countless mistakes on my journey, and I feel fortunate to have been introduced to her. I also particularly love Cara’s reflection on her work. Writes Cara: “Through the lens of their lives, I can see more clearly my world.” Here’s to the small stories.